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Religion and the State of Psychology in the early 20th Century

In the early 20th Century, the academic study of psychology had not yet completely amalgamated into what it is today. Many of the early psychologists struggled to tear the discipline away from philosophy and into the realm of science. I present the major proto-theories of the psychology of religion. These views still persist today to various degrees. While Sigmund Freud's hard atheistic view of religion lingers in the lexicons of popular culture, Carl Jung's idea of the collective unconscious is completely extinct both inside and out of academia.  William James' view endures mainly in the personal philosophies of psychologists and is no longer mentioned in modern journals of psychology.

Psychology in the early 20th century did deal with religion, but in a cautious and often criticized manner. Many philosopher-psychologists saw no way to quantify religion, and felt it not a valid subject for psychology, and in fact the scientist-psychologists of the era saw it pretty much the same way.  Still, the following vanguards of psychology saw fit to take aim at religion, and did so with much commitment.


Sigmund Freud and the Birth of Religion

In his book Totem and Taboo, Freud launches a historical investigation of religion, from which he concludes how religion first came about in an early human tribal society. Freud exposes an original familial clan consisting of a father, his many wives, and his many sons. The father did not allow any of his sons to have sexual relationships with his wives, and Freud proposes this frustration drove the sons to one day kill the father. Due to the sons’ original desire to identify with the father’s sexual wealth, as well as, or perhaps resulting in a primitive belief of anthropophagic acquirement of an enemy’s power, the sons then ate the father in a communal manner.

Elsewhere in his work, Freud proposes that adoration and abhorrence occur simultaneously in a close relationship. This ambivalence towards their father, Freud claims, drove the sons into guilt while positive feelings for their father come forth from their unconscious at equal magnitude to their once feelings of hatred for him. Moreover, the sons are now individual threats to each other, just as they were once threats to the father. In order to prevent a cycle of murder and remorse, Freud explains the sons enacted an exogenous pact to only marry women from outside the clan.

Freud supposes he uncovered the birth of proto-religion with the sons’ transference of worship from the idea of the slain father to an animal. The sons treated this totem animal with respect by not hunting it, although one day per year they would kill and ritualistically eat the animal as they had done so with the father. As time progressed, the sons began to re-associate this totem animal with a more general concept of the universe. Eventually, this totem religion grew into religion as it still exists today, with the modern concept of God originating in the model of a totem animal, which in turn originated from an original tribal father.

Freud believed humanity is moving through three stages of development: Tribal, Religious, Scientific.  He believed society would eventually cast off the unnecessary and unfounded ideals of religion in trade for the exactitudes and truth offered by the scientific method.

The Psychoanalytical Origins of Religion

Freud’s follow-up to Totem, The Future of an Illusion, lays out an analytical explanation for an individual’s belief in God. He claims civilization and its rules are a group survival tool to protect the group and its individuals against the state of nature. In a state of nature, individuals have no limits on their unconscious desires and people would kill or enslave each other. Freud points out humanity cannot survive in this fashion, and so it creates a civilization of rules and limitations to preserve itself. This restriction of possible actions causes frustration in an individual due to prohibition of desires. Freud claims this frustration results in the individual’s wish to undermine civilization, however doing so would counter his basic will for survival.

Since the individual, just like his societal group, wish to be protected from this state of nature, the individual anthropomorphizes nature in order to associate with it as if it were a human. The person treats this illusion as a father, and respects it accordingly and wishes to please it in order to ensure protection from it. Freud poses that religion is popular among adults, who no longer live under the protection of an actual father, because they require a new form of fulfillment for their wish to be protected from the ravages of nature. He points out that in this way, religion seeks to protect the imbalance of the self’s insignificance in relation to vastness of nature by giving importance to the self.

Carl Jung and the Benefits of Religion

Unlike Sigmund Freud, who believed religion to be an illusory wish fulfillment for the weak minded, Carl Jung advocated religion as an indispensable part of an individual’s psychological development. Jung viewed the mind as having three components: the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. Freud’s vision of the mind did not include a collective unconscious. Instead, Freud proposed a moral super-ego, which grew to become the mind’s administrator according to a learned sense of morality. Jung believed the self-actualizing properties of Freud’s super ego pre-exist in the mind as a collective unconscious which is to be discovered through introspection as opposed to learned from experience.

Psychological development ends with complete self individuation which requires of the unconscious mind to find a balance between the many paradoxes it faces. To Jung, the individual struggles with contradictory beliefs and emotions. Self individuation occurs when the unconscious mind learns to reconcile for these paradoxes by perceiving them on a higher level of understanding, a level where the unconscious comes to understand these apparent personality contradictions as in fact concurrent harmonies. Jung explains that this collection of contradictions exists in the individual’s personal unconscious. The individual must learn to analyze this repository of seemingly inconsistent thoughts using the introspective power found in another part of the mind’s unconscious: the collective unconscious.

Jung argues the collective unconscious is consistent across our species. The individual uses various archetypes, or reoccurring patterns of thought, as guides for channeling the power of the collective unconscious. And since we all share an identical collective unconscious, Jung champions a shared method for harnessing the self-realizing power of this part of the mind as a constructive and healthy way to conquer the personal unconscious’ many deceptive schisms. This shared method for self individuation, Jung claims, is religion. Although not himself Catholic, Jung became partial to Catholicism because he believed its rich mythology offers all of the archetypical tools necessary for an individual to probe his or her personal unconscious.

William James and the Value of Religion

In order to reach the most fundamental understanding of the general term of “religion,” William James admittedly focused his induction on the individual’s religious experiences rather than on the organizational aspects of religion. He claims this technique proper since personal religion is central to larger societal religious themes. After all, James explains, today’s major religions began with claims of a personal mysticism, such as the organizations formed around the lives of Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed.

James notes that no single religious emotion exists, as opposed to the more concrete sensations such as fear and happiness. Instead, James sees religion in the individual as separate mental objects that tap these emotions as required. These objects, to James, are components of the individual’s understanding of his or her relation to the divine. Such relationships play themselves out in the individual as physical acts, moral definition, or ritualistic behavior. James induces that these religious experiences then arouse the more concrete personal emotions, completing the connection from the visceral qualia of a religious event to the more abstract, although necessarily real, personal relationship with the divine.

James's views on the value of religion remain persuasive even today, as his famous lecture on The Varieties of Religious Experience has remained part of the psychology and philosophy canon for over one hundred years.

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